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Ronald Stevenson - The Man and His Music

Toccata Press

A symposium edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland.Forward by Lord Menuhin.
Toccata Press
Hardback: £45
ISBN 0-90768940-X
509 pages
Ronald Stevenson, born 1928, is still best known today for his monumental ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’ ,(1960-62), an extraordinary triptych which at approximately eighty minutes duration has legitimate rights to be called the longest single movement solo piano work in the literature. It also ranks as one of the great masterpieces of the instrument, recalling the universality and spirituality of both the Diabelli and Goldberg variations, as well as the artistic legacy of Ferruccio Busoni, the idealism of Casals, the world music of Grainger and the aristocracy of Paderewski. Admirers of this colossal pianistic edifice have included William Walton, Wilfred Mellers, John Ogdon and Kaikhosru Sorabji.
But Stevenson’s Passacaglia is not an austere intellectual cul de sac. Far from it: it is saturated with intense passion and raw emotional depth. Many of its sections can easily be extracted and performed by pianists of grade 5 level, and it is entirely typical of Stevenson’s art in that its prime purpose is to be ‘used’. Stevenson has been unfairly pigeon-holed as a lofty idealist far removed from the general music public, and whilst his extraordinary intellect is indeed impressive, it is always placed at the service of his remarkable passion, his earthy intensity of feeling. So the prime satisfaction for me in reading this extraordinary book is that it triumphantly declares the man as he unquestionably is-the musician that our century desperately needs. Stevenson is the man to break down barriers, unleash new passions and interests for new audiences, as well as to re-inspire and re-optimise the old musical guard. In our post-modernist musical climate, Stevenson now stands as the man who continued through the whole of the latter half of the previous century to evangelise for all that we now crave. Stevenson is the musician for our times and for future times, and this symposium launches his manifesto in all of its idealistic glory on a large international scale. It deserves success, even if it should be viewed as an introduction to the universe rather than its exhaustive history.
It may be thought unusual to describe a 509 page study of a relatively unknown musician as a mere ‘manifesto’/introduction, but Ronald Stevenson is not an ordinary figure. His colossal pianism can be heard on the Altarus record label, and his performance of Grainger’s ‘Rosenkavalier Ramble’ shows in a nutshell that his pianism ranks equally with artists of the stature of Jorge Bolet and Shura Cherkassky. But in addition to his phenomenal repertoire and wide performing career (and this stretches across all the continents, with many remarkable television and radio broadcasts, especially from the 1960s-80s) there is the compositional legacy , which above all else stands as a remarkable testament. With hundreds of songs, piano pieces, orchestral compositions (including two piano concertos, a violin concerto that was dedicated and conducted by Menhuin) and numerous chamber works, it can be compared only with a Villa Lobos or a Darius Milhaud in terms of prolificacy, though the musical influences that predominate are Grainger, Busoni, Casals, Paderewski and Francis George Scott.
But all of the above is but the tip of the Stevensonian iceberg, and the tremendous critical, analytical and broadcasting achievements over the years from the man have included the presentation and authorship of documentaries and series on BBC television and Radio three (Busoni), a history of Western Music, articles for ‘The Listener’, as well as a deep knowledge and love of poetry, particularly the poets of his re-adopted Scottish homeland. If we add to this Stevenson’s inspiration and genius as a teacher (sadly something that this symposium fails to properly address), as well as his deep felt philosophical and political instincts, not to mention his raconteur, powers of oratory, humour and generosity, something of the Stevensonian picture can be seen. And this is a family man too, with children who have won accolades in clarsach playing, acting/singing and violin making respectively.
Colin Scott-Sutherland’s achievement here is to open-out Ronald Stevenson’s image from the Passacaglia. He does this with sympathy, warmth, deep affection and one of the largest collections of photographs I have ever seen in a comparable book. Not that it is easy to compare this work with any previous monograph on a musician, so diverse are the chapter headings. The book begins with a brief but poignant message from Menhuin (‘ I know he will enjoy increasing popularity and that his music will be appreciated more and more. I am an admirer of the man and his music’) and continues after an extensive introductory from Scott-Sutherland with appetising studies of different categories of the music. Contributors include Ates Orga (very inspiring overall on the piano works, if a little off-putting in terms of analytical methodology Re. the Peter Grimes Fantasy), Malcolm MacDonald (supremely impressive, as always, on the orchestral music), Derek Watson (exuding warmth on the songs), Alistair Chisholm on the chamber music and Jamie Reid-Baxter on the choral works. This all takes some 217 pages, and the book could have concluded there. What follows is touchingly quaint in that figures as diverse as John Ogdon, Harry Winstanley, Albert Wullschleger, Alan Cuckson and Scott-Sutherland himself give glimpses of personal recollection, particular interest or viewpoint in chapter headings that include ‘Stevenson and Scotland’, ‘Envoi-What now?’, ‘A note on Stevenson’s Recital programmes’ and ‘Stevenson and the child’. There are also sections in which letters and manuscripts of Stevenson’s music and prose are lovingly re-produced, and invaluable appendices, including lists of most of his compositions, a discography, and a bibliography.
Above all else, this is a symposium that is meant to be used, then used again. Its prime purpose will be to leapfrog performers, musicologists, concert promoters and music lovers of all ages and tastes into action. It deserves the greatest success not only for the prosperity of Ronald Stevenson’s art, but more importantly for the long term health and nourishment of ‘serious music’ in the dangerous political climate that our global village finds itself in today.
Murray McLachlan